Revisiting The Prisoner, when McGoohan wears spurs and chaps

Living in Harmony

The most unique episode of The Prisoner, ever, and for a show like this, that’s saying something.

It’s actually an episode that is absolutely simple and also incredibly complex. You have McGoohan in the role of a lone gunman in a wild west setting, a man who has given up his badge and then… He’s ambushed. Knocked out, and taken to Harmony… Where he’s asked by The Judge to become the new sheriff. He refuses and resists… Of course.

It is, of course, a mind game, a hallucination that is provided using Village technology, but this is found out late in the episode. For most of this episode you have to just accept what is happening with no explanation whatsoever. It’s a risky prospect for any television series… It uproots and potentially alienates the viewer. They did it anyway.

The most intriguing aspect of the episode is that McGoohan wins in the end… The technology that was used to make him think he was in the old west ends up destroying the mind and lives of the two Villagers who were in the same hallucination. Number 8, who in the hallucination was the mute Kid, ends up losing his identity and his mind, killing the woman he had also killed in the fantasy (Number 22). A bittersweet victory, but still a victory.

This is a provocative episode, in that it is absolutely focused on the sense of self. McGoohan is still McGoohan, whether he is wearing chaps or the modern clothes that was imposed on him by the Village. The others? They lost themselves, and by doing so, died. A lesson on the importance of individuality? From this show? Well, duh.

Other aspects of this episode that is noteworthy: Alexis Kanner, who plays Number 8/The Kid, returns in the finale as a new character, Number 48. Or does he? Does Number 22 really die at the end of this episode, or is it part of a Long Con that the Village warders are playing out? Additionally, this episode was not shown in the US because the network said that it “encouraged drug use.” Really? Or was the point of McGoohan not wanting to take up/use a gun in the western segment of the story too close to the anti-war sentiment that was brewing in the country at the time? We’ll never know.

One of the essential must-watch episodes, and one of the best.

Revisiting The Prisoner, wherein McGoohan changes his mind.

Episode 12, A Change of Mind

Patrick McGoohan himself directed this one. Using a pseudonym, one that I really really like.

“Joseph Serf.”

Give you a couple of guesses why.

This is the most Orwellian episode of the series, with scenes where Villagers are expected to confess their sins by repeating the words of an unseen announcer. McGoohan is also aggressively antisocial in this episode, mocking all that sees before him. He’s part revolutionary, part Grouch Marx.

God, I love that man.

Such behavior makes him “Public Enemy Number Six” as his behavior against The Committee (yet another reflection of the power structure of the Village) is “disharmonious” and “unmutual.”

So, this is just fiction, right? A weird SF/spy show from the sixties?

Tell ya what. Go to any social group. A bar, a business meeting, a group of friends. Start being contradictory. Speak openly and without trying to respond to the expectations of those around you. Don’t conform. Be free.

And then see what happens.

McGoohan ends up being declared, formally, “unmutual”, in this episode. He is then completely ostracized from the society he is reveling against… And his life is now truly his own. He is alone.

“The lone wolf belongs in the wilderness!” McGoohan was told in an earlier episode by a New Number 2, and in this episode he sees what that means. He is cast out, like Lucifer from Heaven… And he resists. Always, he resists.

But the system is what it is. He is beaten down by the citizens of The Village and delivered to (another) brainwashing… And, once that “medical recovery” is complete, well, the citizenry are welcoming and friendly to him once more. They have been conditioned to welcome him, and he has been conditioned to act welcoming.

Yeah, just a TV show. Pay it no mind.

-

While brainwashed and drugged McGoohan is interrogated by the Newest Number 2 around the “trivialities” of his resignation… Which was an overreach. The resignation is a core aspect of him, and drugs cannot bury away that core decision that was an absolute reflection of his Self.

It’s a reflection of his Core Beliefs, which you cannot defeat or tame. His life is his own.

As he fights the brainwashing, he returns… To his wilderness training area, one we see he has setup in an earlier scene in the episode. The Lone Wolf. There, he (again) fights Village thugs and this time it is a quick snap to reality… He is who he was, again.

Then, using his own brainwashing techniques, McGoohan connives to have Number 2 declared unmutual… And a small victory is achieved. One of the few that will be won against the power of society… Err, I mean, the Village.

Reflections on The Prisoner: “What’s it all about?”

Recently I’ve become quite reflective and introspective about many things, about who I am as a person, about what drives me. About who I am.

I think I’m a good person. I care, sometimes too much. I speak too much as well, sometimes to fill the empty spaces, more often than not to draw attention to myself. I’m still insecure, still trying to prove myself… I still struggle, at 42 years of age, to feel like I belong.

I’m less insecure than I was, though. I’m good at what I do, and I’m decisive. I’m witty, and when I write I play with words to make my point. I’m occasionally charming. One of my favorite sayings is from the Dalai Lama, a saying that rings true for me, in that “my religion is kindness”. I try to be a good loving husband, and I’m not nearly as good as a father as I want to be.

I’m, above all else, human… And I try to be humane.

I also obsessively love the classic TV show The Prisoner. I speak of it often, recommending it to friends and family. I have written hundreds and hundreds of words about it over the years.

Why?

What is it that draws me to the series? Of all the many hundred of hours of content that I have seen in my lifetime, The Prisoner is the show that I’m always brought back to. It strikes at some core part of me… hitting the right note, if I was the instrument. So, why?

What’s it all about?

Escape.

That to me is the essence of The Prisoner. Escape from the trappings of the establishment, resigning from a job that goes too far… running away. The Prisoner resigns because he is no longer comfortable playing the game that he was a vital part of… A game he may have had an active hand in creating.

Is that why I like the show so much?

Again, my life is my own. I have much to be grateful for, but then… I’m not free. I have responsibilities, obligations to me and mine. And sometimes it’s really hard. So the idea of escaping the status quo, it has some appeal.

The Prisoner, as McGoohan played him, never looked comfortable. He fidgeted as if he was wearing an Ill-fitting suit. Obviously, he was a prisoner, not the most relaxed situation to be in. But he never belonged in The Village. And I never feel I belong, either. Hmm.

I’m currently working away from my family, in another country. It has a different culture, and I can’t help but feel like an outsider. Again, that I don’t belong. Yet…

While I miss my family… I am free. Free from that familial routine. Sometimes, it feels good. And that scares me.

So, are these reasons that I love The Prisoner? Maybe. At the very least, it’s part of it. But maybe I shouldn’t ask any more questions.

Because questions are a burden to others, and answers a prison for oneself.

Revisiting The Prisoner, revisited: “All the world’s a stage” in a strange bedtime story

As I was looking over my posts on The Prisoner, I realized I didn’t write much about the penultimate episode. I correct that oversight now…

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time is unique in several aspects. It again features the great Leo McKern, reprising his Number 2 from the second episode (effectively “bookending” the series). The majority of the plot takes place in a single room, and it is also one of the few episodes that doesn’t feature a female character. It’s also an episode that drops some very clear clues as to why McGoohan is in the Village… a topic I will cover later.

Finally, it’s an amazing piece of storytelling. The premise is simple – the new/old Number 2 returns, apparently not by choice. He calls McGoohan and asks, directly, “Why do you care?” About what? People? Principles? Why do you resist? Or all of the above.

He shouts out to his master (Number 1?) on the phone “We have to use extreme measures… I am a good man… But he will be better.”

He speaks about recruitment, and a transition of McGoohan to a leadership position… Not about interrogation. Hmm.

“Degree Absolute. Deny it, please.” Number 2 asks,

His master(s) do not deny it, and so he and a (brainwashed and brand wiped) McGoohan have to face each other in the Embryo Room, where McGoohan evolves through the seven stages of man, from Shakespeare, from As You Like it: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childhood. Well, he actually doesn’t go through all seven. He only goes through the first five. One could argue that he becomes a pantaloon in the final episode…

Is McGoohan reliving his own life in these scenes? Or are they metaphors? We don’t know but they are still riveting.

In the end McGoohan ends up as judge over Number 2… And calling for his execution. Or does he?

“Die, Six, Die!” is the words McGoohan uses as Number 2 literally runs out of time. Is he killing Number 2, or striking out against the number the warders have given him? I think it’s the later, and that the death of 2 is not a result of any action on McGoohan’s part. At some point I’ll seek out the shooting script to see what it says about this scene.

In interviews about this episode McKern stated that it was one of the most grueling acting efforts he had ever done and it almost drove him to have a nervous breakdown. You can tell – the electricity and the tension between he and McGoohan is palpable on screen, and it makes for riveting viewing.

And then, next episode, The End, where we find out who Number 1 really is…

Why was the Prisoner in The Village?

Let’s go to the clues in the show, shall we?

In the first episode Arrival, the Prisoner (I will call him the Prisoner because that is what his character is named in the scripts) is told by the New Number Two that “I believe you, that it was a matter of conscience.”

So what does that mean? I refer you to this link and suggest you consider the implications of the content there (and think of the many religious subtexts throughout the series): http://acharlie.tripod.com/consc…

Did the Prisoner realize that he was living a life that contradicted his beliefs? If so, then that is a reason to change – to resign, as it were.

Then we have the penultimate episode “Once Upon a Time” where the Prisoner answers the question directly: “Because too many people know too much.” Enigmatic, of course, but think about it. Governments use spies to spy on people, to know things about them. The Prisoner was a human camera, spying on other people just like the hidden cameras spy on people that are in The Village.

People knew too much. He saw the Village in the making, and he saw he as a spy was having an active hand in it’s creation.

Prisoner: “The whole world, as the Village?”
Number Two “That is my hope.”
-The Chimes of Big Ben

So he resigned, and was, ironically, trapped in a world of surveillance, wiretapping, interrogation, and control – The Village. Where too many people know too much.

A world he wanted to destroy because he, directly or indirectly, had helped create it – and this (guilt?) caused him to resign.

The ending of the show is the beginning – it shows Prisoner in the same car, the same shot as the beginning of the first episode, the shot of him in his car driving towards… Where? Why, to resign, of course.

Again. Forever.

See question on Quora

Revisiting The Prisoner, The End: Where we find out who Number One really is

I grew impatient over this past week and decided to cut right to the chase – rewatching the last two episodes. Here’s my thoughts on the series finale, and if I have time I will post additional thoughts on the remaining episodes.

“Fall Out”

This episode is not intended for All Audiences – any viewer who needs things Spelled Out For Them need not apply.

One thing I love about The Prisoner is how it resets viewers expectations at almost every turn. Think that the hero will win? Nope. Think that the show will follow conventional narratives? Uh… no. Think that the bad guy will be revealed in typical James Bond spy fashion, like finally seeing Blofeld in You Only Live Twice? Well…

As many reading this may know, the reaction of viewers when this episode was first aired in the UK was… let’s just use the word “unhappy” as a catch-all. People were pissed off. McGoohan was assaulted on the street by viewers the month following the episode’s airing. I can only imagine what was screamed at him during the incident.

“What was all that? You call that an ending? What the hell did it MEAN?”

Quite a lot, actually, and McGoohan famously never tried to explain it to anyone for the rest of his days on earth… though he did use one phrase in describing Number I that is descriptive in its simplicity:

“Number Six’ alter-ego”

That in the end is what I think is the point of all of it – that the rebels ultimately become the leaders, and that individuals are drawn, ultimately, to become members of the collective – often, to lead them. “Lead us, show us the way” the judge says in the finale, playing to the ego we see on display in so many episodes before. McGoohan accepts… and then rejects, violently, which in turn brings us back to square one – the last shot of the series is the same as one of the first shots of the series – McGoohan driving his car through a desert, defiant and about to resign, again… and so it goes, forever.

“You accepted”
“I rejected!”
You accepted before you rejected!”

- dialogue from “Once Upon a Time”

The independent man rebels, conforms…. and then rebels again… Because he needs society as much as society needs him. As much as he resists, he eventually conforms… but sometimes it is not without a fight.

“The lone wolf belongs in the wilderness!” – Number Two, Once Upon a Time

Who is Number I? well, it’s McGoohan – the free man, who became the leader of the very thing he rebelled against – the establishment. The power of control was too tempting, so he accepted.. then he rejected… Like a moebius strip, the show folds into its own self… he was rebelling against his own ego, his own prison, all the time. The ego of self.

I.

The being we observed through all 17 of these episodes was a leader – and we all crave leadership. That is the secret of the Village – that to some extent all of us want someone to take charge and be in control – it’s EASIER than being responsible to your own self. Being free comes with its own burdens… if you fail, no one helps you. You are all alone. Wouldn’t it be easier if someone took care of things for you? That is what the Village represented. That is what many people wants our world’s government to provide.

That is what I am afraid we have become: Children who want someone else to to take Control for us. So we can enjoy our bread and circuses – read our cheesy novels like Twilight, watch American Idol… A world where we can have all of our needs attended to.

Like healthcare, for example.

“So, what’s it all about?!” - McGoohan, “Arrival”

What does it mean? Well, it means what it is, as McGoohan stated in the episode “Chimes of Big Ben”. It is an epic of imagination and a singular vision, a series that spoke to the need of individuals to be individual, no matter what the consequences. It is a series that in alternating episodes rejects violence and then embraces it, as a necessary part of revolution. It is a show that will be remembered and referenced decades from now (unlike the recent AMC remake).

It is. Like all art, it needs to be interpreted and understood on its own merit. Is the Mona Lisa smiling? And why? We bring our own answer – and my answer to what The Prisoner means is as legitimate as anyone who approaches the series with any degree of seriousness.

So, did he escape? Yes and no… but as Patrick McGoohan is no longer with us, we can at least say with some degree of confidence that he’s on parole.

Be seeing you.